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May/June 2012

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The Opening of Higher Education

In a 1974 report presented to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), Martin Trow laid out a framework for understanding large-scale, worldwide changes in higher education. Trow's essay also pointed to the problems that “arise out of the transition from one phase to another in a broad pattern of development of higher education, a transition—underway in every advanced society—from elite to mass higher education and subsequently to universal access” (Trow, 1974).

The movement from elite higher education (where up to 15 percent of the graduates of secondary education go on to higher education) to mass higher education (16 to 50 percent) is so evident that today it is hardly noticeable as a defining concept. Yet in 1974 the changes in almost every aspect of higher education and its institutions were considered relatively independent objects of study and concern. Trow's model enabled researchers and higher education administrators to see these changes “as integral and variable aspects of the process of growth rather than as discrete issues.” He therefore provided a landscape or a context to analyze and understand the process of change in higher education (Trow, 2010).

The Era of Universal Access

While the shift from elite to mass higher education is well understood, Trow's prediction of the move to universal access is not. Originally, Trow considered universal access as involving admittance to formal education of more than half of high school graduates. He saw the community college movement as an early facilitator of this shift, as was experimentation with the “use of video cassettes, TVs, computers and other technological aids to instruction” (Trow, 1974).

Twenty-five years later, as Internet technologies began to have a significant impact on higher education, Trow extended his view of universal access to include a wide range of informal learning:

Information technology now forces a revision of our conception of the conditions making for universal access: it allows, and becomes the vehicle for, universal access to higher education of a different order of magnitude, with courses of every kind and description available on the Internet in peoples' homes and workplaces. That involves profound changes in both institutional structures and attitudes regarding higher education (Trow, 2010).

Free or Inexpensive Education

One profound change that the new technologies have enabled is the emergence of the Open Educational Resources (OER) movement. “Open,” or free higher education, is both a product and facilitator of universal access to education. From the launch by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) of the Open CourseWare (OCW) movement in 2001, to UC Berkeley's 3,000 video lectures on YouTube, to Stanford's 2011 offering of three free courses on artificial intelligence (with 94,000 enrollees), the movement of high-prestige universities into this arena has generated significant media attention. And this trend is not confined to the US: Mexico's largest university, the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM), just announced that it “will make virtually all of its publications, databases, and course materials freely available online” (Ambrus, 2011).

MIT's efforts established the OpenCourseWare Consortium, or OCWC (; its more than 250 members have posted over 14,000 open courses, including MIT's 2,000 courses, and it has served over 100 million unique visitors so far. Universities, faculty members, students, and self-directed learners utilize other open educational repositories as well, such as Rice University's Connexions (, Merlot (, and the National Science Digital Library (

Governments have become major supporters of OER; their aim is to increase access and degree completion while reducing costs. A growing segment of OER is the open textbook movement, which is supported by the Community College Consortium for Open Educational Resources (CCCOER). The state of Washington has launched an initiative to reduce the cost of learning materials to no more than $30 per course, and a California state senator is seeking $25 million from California to create 50 textbooks for the most common college classes (Thompson, 2011).

These state efforts are overshadowed by central-government initiatives around the world. The Obama administration has awarded $500 million (out of a total expected of $2 billion) to a Department of Labor-administered grant program to educate the workforce in emerging fields (Cummings, 2011). Courses developed with this funding must be offered to the public through open licenses. In 2003 the Chinese government launched the National Quality Course Plan, which has produced 1,500 courses in its first phase and plans to produce 3,000 more in phase two. This project bears watching, because “its purpose is not just to produce open resources but to use the production of open resources to drive curriculum reform and quality improvement in Chinese higher education” (Long, 2011). Similar smaller-scale projects have been launched in Vietnam, Brazil, and Africa.

In all these examples, open education is being offered by formal higher education institutions. However, a large stock of OER is not directed at students or teachers at the university level. Here is where the expansion of universal access is most evident. For example, the Kahn Academy ( serves students and autodidacts outside the framework of courses or degrees, while Peer to Peer University ( facilitates the formation of informal learning communities around topics of mutual interest.

Drivers and Consequences of Universal Access

While technology has facilitated the growth of open education and hence is an important enabler of universal access, learners' eagerness to make use of these resources has social causes, not to mention a number of consequences.

Social Imperative

Despite the rising cost of education and the need for financial aid, a four-year degree continues to command a wage premium and a positive return on investment for students—which for many adults means further education. So it is not surprising that for a number of years, “non-traditional” students (those 24+ years old) have significantly outnumbered traditional college students. Non-traditional students often are employed and have extensive family obligations, so many continue their education on a part-time basis.

Non-traditional students differ in life context, learning motivation, and learning goals from the population traditionally served by colleges and universities. They seek convenient, reasonably priced, high-quality degrees that provide career and job opportunities. This contrasts with the traditional residential undergraduate, who is typically learning to be independent and may seek out the close intellectual guidance of a faculty member. There is recent evidence that there is a systematic failure of some traditional institutions to serve older students (Advisory Committee on Student Financial Assistance, 2012).

As a result, many new institutions have emerged to serve this older audience. As early as the 1970's, non-profit institutions such as Regents College (now Excelsior), Thomas Edison State, and Empire State College were developed to deliver degree-completion programs. More recently, fully online, for-profit universities such as Capella University, the University of Phoenix, and Kaplan University have focused on the non-traditional market. Kaplan University has also created KNEXT™, which is designed to evaluate prior learning and award college credit toward a degree at either Kaplan or another institution (Blumenstyk, 2011).

Public policy has also focused on the non-traditional market. In 1996, 19 state governors created the Western Governors University (WGU) to serve degree completers in their states. WGU's most revolutionary feature is to base the credentials it offers not on coursework completed but on the competencies and knowledge that students demonstrate through a series of assessments. Today WGU enrolls approximately 30,000 students, with tuition at about $2,800 per semester.

Traditional institutions that serve these two distinct markets often struggle to reconcile structures and processes designed for a residential, full-time, young student population with the needs of these older students. Yet colleges and universities that neglect either of these audiences do so at the peril of losing their relevance and failing to fulfill their social contract with the public.

Consequences of Universal Access

Universal access requires institutions to redraw traditional boundaries, serve new audiences, break learning sequences into smaller chunks, and adjust their curriculum content and standards.

Erased geographical boundaries. Historically, American higher education has been based on locally supported institutions serving limited geographical areas, offering “artisanal” degrees generated through a cottage-industry model. During the period when very prestigious universities such as Harvard and Princeton developed national (and indeed, international) reputations, learning was centered on the campus.

Online education has virtually erased geographical boundaries. National providers and “brands” emerged first in the for-profit sector (Capella, University of Phoenix), but now non-profit, traditional universities have gone into the business: Most now offer online degrees, particularly at the master's level, to expand their reach beyond the borders of their traditional service areas.

Over 6.1 million students were taking at least one online course during the fall 2010 term—an increase of 560,000 students over the number reported in 2010 (Allen & Seaman, 2011). The widespread offering of online programs was underlined by the April 20, 2011 “Dear Colleague” letter from the Department of Education, which required national institutions to comply with individual state regulations regarding the offering of degrees within the state (DCL ID: GEN-11-11).

This national expansion is not limited to online education. Northeastern University recently opened its first satellite campus in Charlotte, NC, and is planning a second in Seattle, with satellites in Texas, Minnesota, and the Silicon Valley on the horizon (Lewin, 2011). Cornell, in partnership the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology Consortium, will open a new applied sciences campus in New York City to extend its worldwide reach.

New audiences. Most universities have long served non-degree-seeking audiences, often through their continuing education units, by offering certificate and non-credit programs for working professionals. Online education, combined with the OER possibilities, has radically increased the ability of universities to reach these audiences.

For instance, with funding from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation and the Boeing Company, UCI produced a series of open courses to help California high school teachers pass the California Subject Examinations for Teachers (CSET) in order to teach high school science and math. Traffic to the courses on UCI's OCW web site dramatically increases one week prior to the test.

The overwhelming response to Stanford's open artificial intelligence courses led the university to offer the Stanford Engineering Everywhere program, which serves thousands of students each year (Parry, 2011). And MIT's announcement of MITx is the most recent example of a major university's use of open courses to reach new audiences. MITx is an interactive e-learning venture on an open platform (the prestigious Indian Institutes of Technology plans to join it) that is expected to host “a virtual community of millions of learners around the world.” It will offer certificates to non-matriculated students who complete open courses. Further, self-learners will be able to communicate with others (including MIT students) and, for a “modest fee,” have MITx issue a “credential” (Parry, 2011).

Other universities will be hard put to justify not offering some form of learning assessment to non-matriculated students who learn from courses in an open format. MIT's announcement was immediately followed by the suggestion that this action would disrupt higher education as we know it (Talbert, 2011).

Modularization. A further consequence of universal access is the breaking down of learning sequences and an increased emphasis on curricular modularity. While the four-year degree will not disappear anytime soon, there is increasing pressure for just-in-time education. This requires shorter sequences and certifications.

Merlot, Connextions, and the National Science Digital Library make thousands of free “learning objects” available to teachers and students. These open repositories are joined by Google, iTunes U, and YouTube, which turn content into a commodity that is ubiquitously available at no cost, usually in video lectures lasting one hour or less. Indeed, iTunes has now announced that it plans to go further by offering full online courses, which include supplementary materials, links to related resources, and note-taking capacities.

There is a problem with highly modular open content in a learning project, though. To be sure, the more modular the content, the more useful it is, since it can be used in many learning contexts. However, in important ways, a greater degree of “granularity” through modularization becomes an obstacle to learning, because it destroys the learning context—the logical sequencing of carefully selected learning objects. One answer might be the incorporation of full open courses into curricula, yet faculty members often resist using whole courses that someone else has developed. And when they must alter a fully designed course substantially, they frequently find it more efficient to create or select their own learning objects.

New providers. New providers are entering the universal-access movement from within formal higher education, such as the already cited examples of MITx, Stanford Engineering Everywhere, and the OpenCourseWare Consortium. But many new providers are from outside traditional higher education, such as the Kahn Academy and Peer to Peer University.

Other new providers come along each year to serve the growing need for universal access. For instance, the University of the People offers “free easily accessible online college courses in business and computer sciences” (Reshef, 2011). Open Study ( is a social learning network where students around the world can ask questions, give help, and connect with other students studying similar subjects. StraighterLine ( offers cheap online courses on behalf of 21 accredited college partners (Lipka, 2011).

New standards. Degree-granting education is undergoing a shift from standards based on input (what is taught, who teaches whom) to outcomes (graduates' demonstrable skills and abilities). Spurred by the Bush administration and by continued public calls for accountability, regional accrediting bodies are becoming increasingly insistent on their long-standing requirement that institutions establish clear learning objectives, assess learning, and expect the achievement of learning goals. WGU, with its outcomes-based credentialing, has taken this imperative the furthest. After extensive review by an inter-regional committee, four regional accrediting bodies collectively accredited WGU in all four regions, something no other university has accomplished ( WGU/accreditation).

In non-degree education there is an increasing interest in providing free or very inexpensive learning content leading to certificates or “badges” that verify the achievement of a narrowly defined learning objective (Young, 2012). For instance, the Mozilla Foundation has developed a School of Webcraft, which issues badges certifying the mastery of subjects such as Javascript, HTML, and collaboration. The MacArthur Foundation committed $3 million to the development of the concept, some of which funding is devoted to the establishment of standards for the awarding of badges. Organizations such as NASA, Intel, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and the Departments of Education and Veterans Affairs are collaborating in this effort (Eisenberg, 2011).

The Gates Foundation, the National Science Foundation (NSF), and Learn Capital are supporting OpenStudy, which also seeks to award certificates for learning. MIT has an agreement with OpenStudy to provide badges to students who provide helpful answers in discussion forums. And the Kahn Academy issues “great listener,” “master of algebra,” and “challenge patches” to students using its materials. Even traditional institutions are involved in establishing standards for non-degree education. The University of Southern California (USC), an early MacArthur grantee, is working on standards for volunteer service learning (Young, 2012).

The real proof of the badge concept will come with employer recognition—which has already occurred in some fields, including computer-related certifications such as the ones offered by Microsoft and Oracle.

The move toward universal access has been accompanied by public questioning of the special privileges and immunities of academe and demands that colleges and universities be more transparent. For instance, state legislatures, particularly in Texas and Florida, are questioning university “productivity”—by which they primarily mean faculty workload. Illustrating the connection between accountability, openness, and intrusion into what have been the private spaces of higher education, the Texas legislature passed a law (HB2504) requiring public institutions (except medical and dental schools) to post a public website for every undergraduate course.

Meanwhile, the “edupunk” movement has questioned the structures and costs of higher education. This movement is supported by the Gates Foundation, which funded the publication of The Edupunks Guide to a DIY Credential (Kamenetz, 2011; see also the Kamenetz article on prior learning assessment in the September/October 2011 issue of Change). “An edupunk is someone who doesn't want to play by the old college rules,” says Kamenetz. The premise is that anyone can learn from free material on the web, which is “faster, more up to date, and more relevant to our immediate needs” than material found in a typical college classroom.

Higher Education Responds

Social and technological change has always posed a challenge to education traditions and values, from the development of printing to the Internet. The endurance of the university is testimony to its ability to successfully adapt. But success is hardly guaranteed. Here are some strategies that some colleges and universities have employed to maintain their relevance in the era of universal access.

Production of Open Educational Resources

Following MIT's example, many universities are now producing OER and OCW. Generally, open material is first derived from an existing program or course and then published on an open website. Many universities introduce their OER in the form of video materials, from lectures to full courses. UC Berkeley, for example, has many of its classrooms automatically set up to record lectures and post them to YouTube.

This is illustrative of the by-product nature of most OER. Even MIT's efforts could be looked at in this way, since its open repository of courses was originally created for its own matriculated students. However, the universal access imperative will make the production of OER more purposeful.

In this next stage OER will be created specifically for new non-degree-seeking audiences. For instance, K-12 teachers have been the target for a number of OER efforts, including UCI's CSET preparatory courses and MIT's Highlights for High School.

Adoption of Alternative Certifications

While there is new attention being paid to forms of certification such as badges, universities have been engaged in certification for a long time, generally based on the hours of participation in courses or workshops. Most of it has been in conjunction with mandatory continuing professional education (CPE) for professionals such as doctors, psychologists, lawyers, accountants or for “quasi-professionals” such as hazardous-material handlers and “green” residential builders. Universities will increasingly need to serve the broader needs of students by providing a wide range of learning opportunities and the issuance of certificates in subjects that are not degree oriented.

Definition and Vetting of Learning Pathways

As both the demand and supply of learning opportunities proliferate, the need to define learning pathways and assess their quality and that of the elements (learning objects) comprising them will be increasingly important. Defining the “body of knowledge” that forms the foundation of any area of study is a difficult task that requires a broad view of the field, including its context and its future. And universities will be called upon to exercise their expertise in organizing new and expanding bodies of knowledge.

The proliferation of new undergraduate majors and master's-level degrees is one response to the demand for new learning pathways. Even five years ago majors or degrees in wellness, project management, sustainability studies, bioinformatics, and genetic counseling were unusual. But universities will also need to define the body of knowledge and design learning pathways in subjects that are not appropriate for full degrees. Such pathways are narrower, take less time than traditional ones, and require learning assessments based on measurable procedural knowledge. The universities of the future will need to extend their expertise quickly to meet the needs of emerging fields and sub-professions.

Reduction in the Cost of Education

Learners are taking advantage of free education in part as an effort to reduce the cost of college. Recent advances, such as the production of open text books, have been on the content side of education, but these efforts do not address the underlying problem of higher education—productivity. The exponentially rising price of higher education, due in part to steadily decreasing state support and in part to increasing production costs, means that faculty productivity will simply have to increase.

But increasing productivity in any measurable way threatens traditional models of higher education. For instance, OCW has been focused on offering the 25 most-taught undergraduate courses in the curriculum—courses that generally have high enrollments, are scheduled routinely, and make use of cheap labor. Universities rely on these courses to underwrite upper-division and graduate education. Reducing the opportunity for institutions to benefit from this economy would run counter to their institutional financial interests.

The test for universities is to incorporate free and open learning in ways that positively influence productivity, reduce course-authoring costs, and allow students to demonstrate more learning with less face-to-face instruction and use of expensive physical plant.

College and university administrators are occupied with complex day-to-day concerns such as wide-spread budget difficulties. Therefore it is understandable that they might see the open education movement as at best irrelevant and at worst threatening. Why would they give education away for free during a budget crisis?

But seeing this movement in the context of universal access can help them see more clearly how it is shaping the future of higher education. The examples presented in this article demonstrate that even the most prestigious universities are already making revolutionary adjustments in their services to and their roles in society. The institutional provision and use of free education will become a part of the bloodstream of institutional life as people clamor for increased access. Early adopters who reconcile traditional values with the emerging social need will have a competitive advantage.


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Gary W. Matkin ( is the University of California, Irvine's dean of continuing education, distance learning, and summer session. The Distance Learning Center provides centralized services to UCI units interested in offering on-line programs. Matkin serves as principal investigator on several foundation grants, including ones from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation to advise and sup-port the Foundation's Open Educational Resources initiative. Matkin began UC Irvine's OpenCourseWare (OCW) program in November 2006. UC Irvine became the first West Coast university and first University of California campus to join the OpenCourseWare Consortium (OCWC).

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